Note: This review contains what some may consider to be a spoiler for the first book. If you’d prefer to go into the first book without knowing the true identity of one of the characters until it’s revealed, you may want to avoid reading further and read my review of the first book, The Invisible Library, instead.
The Masked City is both Genevieve Cogman’s second novel and the second installment in the Invisible Library series—and it is every bit as delightful as its predecessor! These books follow the adventures of Irene, a spy for an organization outside of time and space known as the Library, and they are tailor-made for bibliophiles with literary references galore. When she was a junior Librarian, Irene traveled to alternate worlds collecting specific books required by the Library by any means necessary: sometimes she was able to simply purchase them, but other times she had to establish herself in that world and plan a heist. Her role as a member of the Library involves using her wits and ability with the Language, a tongue known only to Librarians that allows them to shape reality (though they must take care to put words together precisely in order to achieve the desired effect!).
At the beginning of The Masked City, Irene is now officially acting as Librarian-in-Residence to the Victorianesque world from her mission in The Invisible Library. This more stationary assignment is no less exciting than her jaunts to various worlds—while on a mission to procure a book from an auction, a rival attempts to poison her and then she and her apprentice Kai, a dragon prince, are attacked by werewolves after leaving the venue—and she continues to handle perilous situations with aplomb.
Irene and Kai have cause to believe the Fae were behind their encounter with violent werewolves, and shortly after this event, Fae libertine Lord Silver confirms their suspicions (though somewhat ambiguously since he’s taken an oath that prevents him from warning them outright). After their meeting with Lord Silver, Irene visits the Library to drop off the hard-earned book and do some research related to their current situation while Kai discusses recent events with their friend Vale, who also happens to be London’s greatest detective. When Irene returns from the Library, she intends to meet Kai at Vale’s, but instead she’s met with disturbing news: Kai has disappeared.
All evidence points to Fae involvement, and Irene must discreetly accompany some of them on a trip to an alternate world’s seventeenth-century-like Venice to have any chance of saving her apprentice before it’s too late. The problem with this course of action (besides the obvious problems of blending in and escaping with Kai) is that this world is so chaotic that it’s perfectly suited to the Fae, right down to having a tendency to conform to the narratives they wish for their own stories to follow. It’s a dangerous quest but the consequences of failure are not only personal but also political: a war between the Fae and the dragons could lead to the destruction of worlds, and neither side would spare innocents caught in the middle of their conflict.
Just like the first book in the series, The Masked City is immensely entertaining with delightful narration. Though it didn’t build on the mysteries introduced in the first book or have as much of Kai and Irene together as I would have liked, it made up for these absences in other ways and I enjoyed it every bit as much as the first book—even a little bit more.
The Invisible Library series is largely an ode to books, and the plot of The Masked City in particular revolves around the power of language and story. It’s concentrated on the Fae and reveals more about how they operate in a chaotic world suited to their nature as well as how it affects humans and the orderly nature of dragons. The Fae have a flair for drama and tend to see themselves as playing a role in a story, and when on a chaotic world, events tend to bend to fit their own narratives. I’m not entirely convinced by this: although it seems reasonable that a world suited to the Fae would work to their advantage, I also find it odd that a chaotic being on a chaotic world would tend to find their lives following patterns. Similarly, more powerful Fae become walking stereotypes, which also seems more predictable than I’d expect from a being of chaos. However, it didn’t bother me too much because this also led to Irene needing to use her knowledge of fairy tale traditions as part of her rescue mission.
As much as I loved the focus on storytelling, Irene herself is the highlight of The Masked City. Irene is competent, practical, responsible, quick thinking, and difficult to unnerve. Realizing she’s been given a glass of poisoned wine is not a cause for panic for her: it’s a mere inconvenience and a waste of a refreshing chilled drink. There are some situations—such as visiting a dragon king—that make her nervous, but she still keeps a clear head even when outside of her comfort zone. Though not perfect, Irene is analytical and rather self aware, and she never seems to take a risk without weighing the options and evaluating the stakes and consequences first. I appreciated these qualities in the first book, but I thought this novel gave an especially good sense of her character and priorities since she has to make a big decision based on different loyalties and duties. She’s not the type to dwell on whether or not she made the right call once she’s made a choice or shirk the repercussions of her actions, and I am even fonder of her as a character now.
Even though I missed reading about Kai and Irene working through an assignment together, I did enjoy the introduction of Zayanna, a flirty Fae woman whose scenes with Irene were great fun. Irene meets Zayanna while trying to blend in amongst the Fae, and she ends up getting Zayanna caught up in some of her troubles. Zayanna is quite unfazed by this: in fact, she is delighted by it and believes it could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. She loves melodrama, wholeheartedly enjoys being caught up in adventure, and is quick to contribute reckless plans of her own.
It may not have delivered some of the answers I’d been hoping for after reading the first book, but The Masked City still delivered an amusing tale focused on a wonderfully capable heroine. The Invisible Library is becoming one of my favorite new series and I can’t wait for the fourth book (since I’ve already read the newly-released third novel, The Burning Page!).
My Rating: 8.5/10
Where I got my reading copy: Finished copy from the publisher.
Other Reviews of The Masked City: